TV

Red Gets Poisoned, but 'The Blacklist' Gets Better in "The Apothecary"

Anthony Merino
Red (James Spader) struggles to hang on the latest episode.

Decent writing, great casting, and a potential plot twist help The Blacklist recover some of its faded glory.


The Blacklist

Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm
Cast: James Spader, Stacie Morgan Lewis, Jamie Harrold, Megan Boone
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 14 - "The Apothecary"
Air Date: 2017-02-24
Amazon

Do anything 84 times and two things will happen. First, the history of what happened the first 83 times will undoubtedly inform what happens the 84th time. Second, it's difficult to be original. Both dynamics play out in the latest episode of The Blacklist, "The Apothecary".

On its own, it would be exceptional, as it has all the necessary parts: surprisingly compelling baddie, and high suspense, as the main character Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader) is poisoned at the start of the episode. These elements create two big questions: will Red live, and who betrayed him? Unfortunately, the show's past restricts either narratives' effectiveness. After 83 episodes, coming up with a new and interesting baddie would be a challenge for any writer. Fortunately, these writers more than meet the task.

We find out in the beginning that one of Red’s closest confidants has poisoned him. While the show tries to milk the suspense, this is The Blacklist. Creator Jon Bokenkamp doesn’t kill off lead characters. Every member of the show’s core has been placed in mortal danger. All of them have survived. After all, last year, the writers had Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) fake her own death, so there's no real suspense at the end when the antidote is found and Red's condition stabilizes.

Before the reveal, the second, and the most successful suspenseful element is who poisoned Red. There are enough reoccurring members of his entourage that no one sticks out as an obvious candidate. After the reveal, the audience should be obsessed with why. The history of the show, however, undermines this question. Red's already been betrayed by one of his most trusted confidantes, Mr. Kaplan (Susan Blommaert), who incidentally, was also left for dead and then resurrected. In that storyline, Kaplan's motive was to protect Red from the destructive path he was on; he decided the only way to keep Red safe would be to betray him. The first time, this conceit tested the viewer's ability to get lost in the series logic, even though the writers did a good job of building a plausible narrative. Going back to the same well again would prove to be extremely irritating.

What the show hasn't done is have one of the main characters go all-out evil. Which is odd, because what initially captivated audiences was Red's moral ambiguity. Early in the series, Keen asks Red if she can trust him, to which Red perfectly responds, "No, of course not! I'm a criminal. Criminals are notorious liars. Everything about me is a lie. But if anyone can give me a second chance, it's you." Red's a bad guy. Most of the missions he sends the FBI's way are designed to further his interests. More and more, however, Red's drifted to being a good guy.

Although heartbreaking, it'd be refreshing to see one of the good guys go bad. Like killing off people, the series has a history of going to this well: alluding to someone turning bad, only to have them have a change of heart. One of the ways The Blacklist originally hooked its audience was to have Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) turn out to be a spy hired to seduce Liz. Like Liz's death, however, this turned out to be a head fake, and Tom got worked into the show as another good guy. There were also a few moments where it looked like Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) was going to change sides and align with Red, only to back away from this development.

While the choice isn't binary, the writers need to choose one of two directions. First, that the betrayer is an essentially good person with noble intentions, which would just be a rehash of the Mr. Kaplan plot line. Or second, the betrayer could be a true baddie. The series could reveal a known character had spent the entire time befriending Red only to get close enough to betray him. This would introduce another, newer arc into the series. Additionally, it could cause a split between Red and the FBI task force he's been working with. Next year could be spent with Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) chasing Red, assisted by a few background characters. There's a lot of talent that's gone into the series, and they all deserve a chance to do something more than the typical rehashed plots the show's featured this year.

The Blacklist's rogues' gallery offers 100 hundred different flavors, but with 84 episodes under its belt, coming up with a different, interesting villain is clearly a challenge for the writers. They must navigate an increasingly narrowing balance beam between rehashed characters and completely unrealistic absurdities. The question becomes, do the show's writers make another version of vanilla, or try a risky blend, like squid sorbet? There've been a few blunt force baddies, exemplified by Luther Todd Braxton (Ron Pearlman); some effete baddies, like Alistair Pitt (Tony Shaloub); surprisingly unconventional ones, like Dr. James Covington (Ron Cephas Jones), who'd implant black market organs into people and extort rent out of them; or twisty villains, like Nasim Bakhash -- AKA the Djinn (Christine Tawfik) -- who made her fortune by arranging sadistic fantasies for her clients, turning a garden-variety plot into a Pedro Almodóvar-level examination of perversity and skill.

This week's bad guy, Asa Hightower (Jamie Harrold), however, blows away the scales of creepiness. He creates toxins that are engineered to the specific biology of each of his victims. Harrold's an inspired casting; his small physique and quiet mannerism generates sympathy for him that's quickly dispensed with when the audience learns he keeps his wife Ruby (Stacie Morgan Lewis) sedated and in bed.

These two actors reflect one of the strongest elements of the series: the ability to cast properly. The Blacklist has drawn from a stable of exceptionally acclaimed actors, including Alan Alda, David Strathairn, Jane Alexander, and Christine Lahti, lesser-known but still excellent performers, such as Deirdre Lovejoy, Edi Gathegi, Fisher Stevens, to unknowns, like Lewis.

Despite that, the problems facing The Blacklist aren't new. Almost every series comes with an expiration date. For The Blacklist to makes it to season five, two things should be required of it. First, season five should be its last. Second, the series needs a major overhaul, either by completely changing the set-up, as David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon did in 2004 for the final season of Angel, or juggling the cast -- getting rid of the main lead and one or two other characters -- like David Shore did in the final season of House. Without some kind of reset, it might be best to just put the series out of its misery.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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